School-levy results reflect our broken funding system
Are Mahoning Valley voters more supportive of public school districts than most Ohioans?
On the surface, evidence from this week’s primary election would suggest that yes, they are more willing to support school systems’ requests for continued or additional tax dollars to fund school operations.
According to an Ohio School Boards Assocation analysis, 68 percent of the 92 school issues across the Buckeye State won voter approval Tuesday. In Mahoning and Trumbull counties, however, voters approved a full 86 percent of the seven additional and renewal levies on the ballot.
Additional levies passed in the Boardman and Howland school districts. One hundred percent of all renewal levies in the two counties – for Western Reserve Local, Joseph Badger Local, Mathews Local and McDonald Local schools – were approved. The lone district where voters sounded a resounding “no” to additional emergency funds was Niles, where 68 percent of voters said no. That compares to 70 percent who said no to a much larger additional levy for the struggling Trumbull County school system on the ballot last November.
Nonetheless, except for that one massive defeat, it would appear that most Valley residents bought the arguments of their school district leaders on the need for continued or expanded funding through an increase in rates of local property taxes.
That appearance, however, masks some important underlying realities, the largest of which is the anemically low voter turnout for this year’s primary election. In a nutshell, that means the final tallies resulted from decidedly minority rule of the majority.
Both Mahoning and Trumbull counties registered turnouts at less than 25 percent of all eligible voters for this week’s election. That’s an embarrassing reflection on the level of civic engagement and citizen responsibility in our region.
Collectively, the 2018 primary stands as one in which the vast majority ceded authority to a relatively small handful of voters. In the Valley, it was akin to allowing one person in a group of four to decide what is best for the group while the other three sit idly and silently by.
It therefore becomes painfully difficult to create an accurate gauge of the degree of local support for any candidate or any issue on Tuesday’s ballot. As for school issues, that difficulty becomes all the more challenging when looking more closely at the margins of victory determined by a minority of eligible voters. Most of those margins were wafer-thin.
For example, the 5.8-mill 10-year emergency additional levy for the Boardman school district passed by less than 3 percentage points or by about 200 votes out of about 10,200 that were cast. Similarly in Howland, that school district’s 5.9-mill additional tax levy was approved by a narrow 52 percent to 48 percent margin. Even the 4.15-mill renewal levy for the Joseph Badger Local School District in Trumbull County eked out a victory by the skin of its teeth. It passed 51 percent to 49 percent with only 25 votes making the difference.
VICTORIES ARE NOT MANDATE
Therefore leaders of those and other school districts where levies passed by unimpressively small margins can ill afford to accept the results as an overwhelming mandate of support for their financial and academic management.
Those same leaders, in return for voter support Tuesday, must now double down to ensure the dollars awarded them are wisely spent. To be sure, we and many voters will be watching to ensure transparency in operations and accountability to taxpayers remain their primary priorities.
Tuesday’s results also should send messages to Columbus. The continued trend of close calls on or voter repudiation of additional-tax issues and tax renewal initiatives should serve as yet another wake-up call to Ohio education leaders and state legislators to fix Ohio’s dysfunctional education system once and for all.
The state’s school funding system has been declared unconstitutional several times over the past 20 years, and despite some minor tinkering, it remains broken. Overreliance of the local property tax has created unequal schools. Rich school districts with high property values provide better education than poor districts with low values, which runs counter to the state’s constitutional guarantee of a “thorough and efficient” education for every student.
Until that broken system is fully repaired, we expect support for local tax-levy appeals to remain lukewarm at best.